One of the most mind-bending encounters I had early on in my residence here was the realization that when people refer to "bowling," they are as likely as not speaking of "Candlepin," rather than the variety the rest of the country is more accustomed to.
Candlepin bowling is just like regular bowling, except it's hard.
That's the two-second summary, but there's a bit more to it. The rules of the game are more or less familiar to anybody who's bowled in their lives, but the ball is much smaller and the pins are much narrower. While I unfortunately have no photos to illustrate the differences, those people on Flickr who think it's fun to share every little visual detail of their life with the world are happy to oblige.
My ten-second summary: Candlepin is like regular bowling, except the ball is small, the pins are narrow, and when you knock something down, it stays put until your frame is over. You can then use this "fallen wood" to strategically knock over other pins that are still standing. Sounds easy, right?
I finally got a chance to play last night, when our neighbor invited us out to Lanes and Games (worst website ever). Walking into Lanes and Games is like walking into any huge bowling alley. There's the pro shop. The lounge. The video arcade. The pool tables. Then you realize that all the bowling lanes are Candlepin, and it starts to get surreal! People are treating this sport like it actually exists! In fact, people are good at it!
Lanes and Games is a two-story bowling alley, big enough to be huge without the second story. The entire bottom floor is (I think) Candlepin bowling, while the second story is mostly regular bowling with a few lanes of Candlepin. So the percentage of Candlepin lanes is a bit more than 50%.
By the way, they call regular bowling "Ten-Pin," which is a name somebody must have come up while extremely drunk or extremely dumb, because there are also ten pins in Candlepin. If it was up to me I would call regular bowling "easy bowl." Since this is my blog, it is up to me!
The first thing you notice when playing a game of Candlepin is that the ball is very small. The lane return is just like an easy bowl lane return except the profile is much slimmer. Overall the appearance of Candlepin is much more elegant, despite the raucous action on the lanes. It was interesting to play Candlepin in the proximity of easy bowl because the speed of Candlepin made the easy bowl look ridiculously slow-motion.
The second thing you notice about Candlepin is that it's hard. You palm this little ball, make your approach sort of like easy bowl, then release the ball while twisting your wrist in an uncoordinated manner so as to hurl the ball directly into the gutter. If you've ever played Skee-Ball, Candlepin is somewhat similar. Now imagine rolling a Skee-Ball to the far end of a bowling lane. This is where it gets hard. When you do manage to hit a pin, the narrow profile can make the whole event much less eventful than with easy bowl. Unless you smack the pin into a chaotic frenzy, it's liable to just fall over, punching a hole in the triangle of arranged pins. When by chance a pin falls in front of a bunch of other pins, it offers a rare chance for a novice "home run." I like to call this "the bulldozer." People much more entitled to come up with Candlepin terminology have apparently settled on the term "barn door." You can learn more of their charming terminology on the International Candlepin Bowling Association website. My impression in this case is that "International" means "New England and Eastern Canada." The site also includes an "official rules" type document, which includes provisions for magical things that can apparently happen in Candlepin games:
To sum up the difficulty of Candlepin, I will announce now that my final score in my first game was 39. Yes, they score Candlepin essentially the same as regular bowling: a perfect game is 300. Getting back to the "Candlepin is hard" summary, I will point out that while perfect games in bowling are fairly common, there has never been a perfect games in Candlepin. You just don't get too used to seeing all the pins go down. The best Candlepin game ever played only added up to 245. That's still a lot better than 39, but it's no perfect game!
We ended up playing two games. On my second try, I broke 50! Not a bad improvement. We all had better second games, but were a bit demoralized and decided to try a game of easy bowl to get our spirits back.
2-Second summary of easy bowl: It's like Candlepin, only it's easy to aim, and when you hit any pin, they all fall down.
We only played one game of easy bowl, but even after a maybe 4 years since I last played, I managed a 150+ game. Thank god for easy bowl!
I'm intrigued by Candlepin, and I would like to play again. Fortunately, they hide these bowling alleys around every corner in these parts. Not only do the big bowling alleys have them, they are present in quaint little neighborhood settings such as Sacco's Bowl Haven in Davis Square, where they proudly declare "We've got small balls, but we're big on fun."
Over in Boston proper, a bar called the Milky Way in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood offers karaoke, cushy couches, and Candlepin all huddled together in a hipster-bar environment. We went here once to meet some friends, and I was mighty jealous of the Candlepin players.
Next time you're in New England, give Candlepin a try. It's fun! And it's American, yet it's foreign. At least to most of us.